Graduate students organize first-ever virtual physics conference

Virtual Physics Conference 2020 draws attendees from across the nation

Katie Willis - 07 May 2020

When the American Physical Society’s Northwest Section conference was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Alberta PhD student Pramodh Senarath Yapa was disappointed, but not deterred. 

Slated to take place at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops, British Columbia this May, the conference was cancelled in accordance with public health orders designed to protect the community in the midst of the pandemic. It was then that TRU conference organizer Mark Paektau suggested that Senarath Yapa explore the idea of taking the conference online—and thus, the Virtual Physics Conference 2020 was born.

“The Virtual Physics Conference 2020 is a grassroots effort to provide graduate students and professional physicists with a chance to meet, share, and discuss their work in a welcoming, virtual environment,” said Senarath Yapa, who is studying under the supervision of Joseph Maciejko and Frank Marsiglio in the Department of Physics. “Although we are primarily focusing on Canadian institutions, we already have abstracts from researchers in Switzerland, so it's a truly international conference.”

Senarath Yapa is working closely with fellow UAlberta graduate student Patrick O’Brien to plan the online conference, which will include presentations and plenary talks featuring experts in physics and astronomy from Cornell University, University of Alberta, Thompson Rivers University, University of Toronto, Simon Fraser University, University of British Columbia Okanagan, and the national particle physics laboratory, TRIUMF. The conference will take place on May 20, 2020. 

“I am excited to see all of this come together, and I can't wait to see the new avenues of collaboration that virtual conferences will open up,” said Senarath Yapa. “Conferences are where networks are formed, ideas are spawned, and young researchers are inspired to take on new challenges. Especially for researchers early in their career, conferences are critical milestones and let us practice the soft-skills of doing science.” 

The conference will take place in VirBELA, an online space that emulates a real-life working environment and provides users with avatars to simulate face-to-face communication. 

This pandemic has led to the cancellation of many normal academic activities, and we need to find alternatives if we want research to continue,” added Senarath Yapa. “And if there's been one main lesson from the pandemic, it's the importance of research and scientific expertise.” 

Learn more about the Virtual Physics Conference 2020.

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